I originally planned on using this in the upcoming Literary Villains edition of Femnista, but decided to go with a different literary villain instead.
Victor Hugo wrote two famous novels in his life: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Les Misérables. Interestingly, both follow themes of redemption, faith, false piety, and hardship in the streets of France. What is even more interesting is that his earlier anti-hero, Claude Frollo, bears more than a passing resemblance to his more famous, Inspector Javert. Both men pursue someone to the bitter end, at great personal cost, in the meantime destroying lives around them; each vindicate their desires through their self-proclaimed “righteousness,” and both have an unfortunate fate.
Even though less inspiring than his later novel, his first book has been adapted many times for the big and small screen, turned into a French musical, and even made into a Disney animated film.
Yet, almost without fail, the big-screen representations of Frollo bear only a passing resemblance to their literary counterpart. Many of the films contain elements of the original book but usually change the ending to a happier one (in Hugo’s novel, just about everyone dies!).
Frollo in the novel is a compassionate man driven to madness through lust; when others are fearful of the misshapen, deformed child left on the church doorstep, he springs forward to adopt it. The deaf Quasimodo (the result of vigorous bell ringing) accompanies him at times in excursions into Paris, and Frollo communicates with him in a complicated series of hand-gestures.
When Frollo, an archdeacon of Notre Dame, sees the gypsy Esmeralda dancing in the street, he becomes fascinated with her and employs his hunchback to kidnap her, for his own benefit. She eludes him and in his possessive jealousy over her, he follows her to an upper room and, when seeing a Captain of the Guard, making overtures to her, in a fit of rage stabs the man. Frollo leaves her there, not realizing he sentences her to be tried for murder!
He comes across, in the book, as a man struggling between desire and duty; a man obsessed not only with the church but alchemy, hopeful of turning stone into gold. Desperation fuels many of his decisions but while he is a main antagonist, he is no more a “villain” than the lustful, careless, womanizing Phoebus. Neither of them moves to save her, but both desire her.
Disney’s approach to Frollo is to take him from a priest to a power-hungry magistrate of Paris. He raises Quasimodo only because the archdeacon tells him his intention to drown the baby won’t be forgiven by God. Frollo derives great satisfaction from imprisoning Quasimodo in Notre Dame as punishment both for his hideousness and in order to brainwash him into total servitude.
His infatuation with Esmeralda grows from his rage at her defiance (she alone refuses to submit to his authority) and his lust for her. Though from the beginning he tries to eradicate the gypsies in Paris (he calls them vermin) and his pursuit of Esmeralda leads to mass genocide and persecution throughout the city. Finally, he offers her a choice, between him and the fire.
Book Frollo is all about desire; his lust not only for a gypsy girl but also for “more,” to discover gold, to become someone important. Movie Frollo is all about control; a lack of it enrages him and drives him to violence.
Criticisms of faith appear in the book, also in the Disney film; Hugo points out the cruel methods of torture and forced submission under the oppression of the Catholic Church of the 1400’s. The movie takes it a step further; it removes Frollo as an archdeacon but gives him a self-serving moralistic piety that he fights against when considering his evil deeds. Frollo blames God for his sins, when he points out how God “made the devil so much stronger than a man.”
Yet, the Disney film is not anti-religious; rather, two significant characters balance out Frollo and present a virtuous view of what God and believers are supposed to be. First is the archdeacon, a barely-seen voice of reason, tolerance, and love. Second, and more importantly, is Notre Dame herself, an iconic vision of God on earth, important to all the characters, constantly watching over them, seeing all that transpires in Paris, and in the end, turning against Frollo and literally sending him to hell.
Where the message of the book is somewhat obscured, the message of the film is evident: a condemnation of those who use God and the Church to justify their own desire for power, control, and cruelty.
Often, the greatest villains are not those whose deeds are incredible, but those who stray into evil without any grand gestures; those who believe themselves to do right, and in so doing, cause the reader to recognize in them some part of human nature.
After all, without the intervention of God, there is a villain in all of us.